John Bennett, deputy chief of staff for Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, disputed Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson’s characterization of her petition for a new form of government last week.
“Unless she was speaking about a blank form, there is no petition that is approved by this office,” Bennett said.
This month, Wilson has been circulating her own petition in competition with one distributed by a group known as Fresh Start Fairhope, to hold a special election for a “council-manager” form of government in the Eastern Shore community, which has been divided by politics since she took office in 2016.
In a blog post dated June 21, Wilson said her petition was “prescribed by the state.” During a meeting of Fresh Start Fairhope later that evening, she interjected with a statement from Baldwin County Probate Judge Tim Russell stating the petition “should specify three council members elected by district, one council member at-large and mayor at-large.”
In a subsequent interview, she noted how Fresh Start Fairhope’s petition had changed from its initial intent toward districts to at-large after internal feedback, and argued it “is not the petition approved by the Secretary of State.”
“The one that I have uploaded on my website, and I will have printed and available at our facilities, is the approved petition.”
Wilson said her petition was approved by Russell, her attorney Matt McDonald and Ed Packard, administrator of elections for the Alabama Secretary of State.
But Bennett said his office’s only communication with Wilson was to “basically say we were not not familiar with the issue or prepared to issue guidance,” and the office encouraged her to seek the advice of McDonald, the Alabama League of Municipalities and Russell.
Last Friday, Russell called Lagniappe to note that the petitions, whether they call for a district or at-large council, had to be submitted to his office by June 29, not July 5 as he originally thought. He also said he was “not taking a position … I just have to verify the petitions and set up the election. Whether they go to districts or at-large, that would be up to [the voters].”
Russell did offer a personal opinion: As the former mayor of Foley, he said districts there allowed the council to be “closer to their constituents” and prevented having “five council people who all live on the same street.”
While none of Fairhope’s five city councilmen live on the same street, they all live within 2.5 miles of Fairhope City Hall, while the town’s corporate limits extend some five to six miles to the east and south. The council also lacks minority and female representation.
“Do you really want a group of 60 people to determine the future of Fairhope, especially when many of them are tied to an old regime?” Wilson asked, speaking of the former city councilors and committee appointees who organized Fresh Start Fairhope. “Who would be against districts? The drawing of the districts would be by a third party, maybe [the University of South Alabama], which would include equal population and include a portion of the bay, and there is an underserved community that wants to come into our city. They absolutely want representation and a vote.”
In 2015, Lagniappe reported how Fairhope and other communities in Baldwin County have corporate limits drawn to exclude minority neighborhoods. Former Mayor Tim Kant suggested at the time the predominantly African-American neighborhood centered around Young Street in Fairhope did not want to be part of the city.
Councilman Kevin Boone, who emphasized city attorney Marcus McDowell advised against using their elected positions to advocate for or against the petitions, said his personal opinion was to “leave the form of government the way it is.”
“Districting does nothing but separate the city,” he said. “If I represent the northern district, what do I care about the southern district?”
He also said he had met with members of the Young Street neighborhood, advised them on how to be annexed into the city if they so desired, and “didn’t get a feel” one way or another whether they actually intended to.”
“They are represented by the county, and we can do joint ventures with the county on issues” that need to be addressed in that neighborhood,” Boone said.
At the meeting of Fresh Start Fairhope last Thursday, organizer Chuck Zunk said the group is “still investigating” whether to support districts, in spite of an internal poll supporting at-large representation.
“This group voted and we thought at-large was the best to pursue, but there are some roadblocks,” he said. “Some believe the law says we have to form districts by default. But that investigation does not need to slow down our petition drive. If our petition is signed, it doesn’t commit you to one way or another.”
Zunk also encouraged attendees to disregard Wilson’s petition and Russell’s timeline. He is asking that Fresh Start Fairhope’s petitions be submitted to him between June 29 and July 5 (see editor’s note below). On Tuesday, Zunk said early indications from people circulating the petitions has been “very positive,” but until all petitions are submitted there will not be an accurate tally.
“Both groups have said all along they expect to have 1,000 signatures in short time,” Russell said. “We shall see.”
Editor’s note: On Wednesday, July 27, the organizers of Fresh Start Fairhope asked for all petitions to be submitted to them by 10 a.m. on Friday, June 29.